Teen brain cancer survivor: Be a warrior, not a victim
In high school, I didn’t have much of a social life. I had trouble with insomnia, anxiety, paranoia, depression and apathy. As time went on, it became increasingly disruptive to my life.
Then, when I was 16, I learned that my mental torment wasn’t just teenage anguish -- it was a brain tumor. During a physical, a nurse noticed that my pupils didn’t react to her light, so I was taken to a neurologist for an MRI.
The MRI scan revealed a lemon-sized tumor growing on my pineal gland, a small gland in the brain responsible for producing the hormone melatonin. It was surprising because I hadn’t experienced more common physical brain tumor symptoms like headaches or seizures. Even though I was in complete shock after hearing I had brain cancer, I felt hope for being cured and finally finding an answer to my problems.
My brain tumor treatment and side effects
After a biopsy at our local hospital, I was diagnosed with pineal region germinoma. My family chose to bring me to MD Anderson because of the success stories they’d heard and the hospital’s superb reputation for cancer care.
I started treatment with four rounds of chemotherapy in early 2008, followed by 30 rounds of proton therapy radiation to the brain. The chemotherapy caused mild neuropathy in my feet; they tingled when I woke up and touched the floor. The proton therapy made some of my social issues worse. I had trouble thinking of what to talk about, which caused even more frustration and anxiety.
I finished treatment and was declared cancer-free by the end of 2008. But it took longer for my neuropathy and mental issues to improve. I continued to feel socially handicapped. I was suicidal for years, unable to cope with the thought of losing my teenage years.
Making up for lost time
In 2016, I was accepted to Texas State University, and I finally started coming back to life. Now, I talk to everyone in my classes. I have a large group of friends, and I’m very social. I guess you could say I’m making up for lost time!
My goal is to become a writer, speaker and advocate for teenage cancer survivors. Even after I finished treatment and my brain tumor was physically gone, it took a long time to heal and recover mentally and emotionally. I continue to check in with my neuro-oncologist, John Slopis, M.D., every six months to monitor my health.
During treatment, I listened to a lot of music -- everything from John Mayer to heavy metal. I learned to play guitar a few years before my diagnosis, but brain cancer took away my interest in playing for a long time. I only began playing again as I started to feel better recently. It really helped me to start entertaining myself in a creative, positive way.
Advice for teenage cancer survivors
As I’ve learned, it’s important not to look at yourself as a victim. I used to see being a cancer survivor as a cold, hard reality. But I want to encourage other teen cancer survivors to not stumble into a negative mindset like I did. Stay confident. Stay positive. Know that it will be OK. You are a warrior!